This is not a term you’ll find in the wine magazines or in any other of the Winestream Media. For one thing, their eyes roll around in their heads like the high school kids in the “Porky’s” shower scene when they taste tarted up wines (and speaks to the number of old white guys who write about wine). For another, it’s something that too many wineries are embracing — including those who know better — in reaction to the recession, increased competition, and the mistaken impression consumers want these wines.
If you’re going out, most likely to get laid, you get “all tarted up” — in other words, get dressed up, put your best clothes on, wear very few clothes.
A tarted up wine is dressed to sell, which means that it has been stripped of all character save one — lots of sweet fruit flavor, which is often reinforced by adding grape juice concentrate or the dreaded MegaPurple concentrate. This is perfectly legal and very common, and especially in cheap wine (though it’s not unusual in expensive ones, either). The sweet fruit covers up a variety of winemaking flaws and poor quality grapes because it makes the wine taste sweet, even if it’s dry. And since the sweet fruit overwhelms the tannins and acid, it gives the impression that the wine is “smooth” — the ultimate goal of every consumer wine tasting focus group.
The term has its roots in Randall Grahm’s writing; the Bonny Doon impresario has long argued that some wines are made the way plastic surgeons enhance women’s breasts — the more jiggle the better. Peter Bell, the winemaker at New York’s Fox Run Vineyards, also helped me figure this out during a long morning judging grocery store zinfandels, sharing his expertise on the technical skills needed to turn wine into Kool-Aid-style wine coolers.
So what you need to know about the three-tier system, which regulates how everyone in the U.S. buys wine, beer, and spirits:
Prohibition, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, outlawed the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol in the U.S. until it was repealed 13 years later by the 21st Amendment. Repeal gave us the three-tier system, so named because it has three parts: The first tier are the producers, the wineries, breweries, and distilleries. They can only sell their product to a distributor, the second tier. Only the distributor can sell to retailers and restaurants, which are the third tier. Save for limited exceptions, like direct shipping, and which total less than 10 percent of all wine sales, the consumer can only buy wine from the retailer or restaurant.
This makes wine different from almost every other consumer good in the world. If you want to buy a computer from Dell or shoes from Nike, each is only a couple of mouse clicks away from the manufacturer’s website. And Amazon has become a $61 billion company by serving as the ultimate retailer, crossing state lines to sell its customers everything from books to underwear.
But ordering wine from an out-of-state producer is a crime in much of the U.S., and it’s a crime in every state to order wine from an out-of-state retailer. On-line retailers like Wine.com, which is in 42 states, have to legally qualify as an in-state retailer (by setting up an office or a warehouse, for example) to be allowed to do business in those states. And even Amazon, with its new Wine Marketplace, has to abide by these rules. Technically, it doesn ?t sell wine, but serves as a conduit to retailers and producers that are legally allowed to sell it.
How did we get to this point? Why is alcohol different from running shoes? Because the political compromise that ended Prohibition allowed each state to regulate alcohol in its own way. Three things are important about this:
? Every state ended up using some form of the three-tier system, and every state has modified the three-tier system to what it thinks works best for it. Which means there are 50 laws for 50 states, and sometimes different laws within states. Pennsylvanians can only buy wine from retailers owned and operated by the commonwealth. New Yorkers can’t buy wine in grocery stores. Montgomery County, Md., residents can’t buy wine at retailers like Cost Plus World Market, but residents of adjacent Prince George’s County can.
? Three-tier was designed to keep organized crime out of the booze business, which is understandable given the role organized crime played in bootlegging during Prohibition. Every liquor law attorney I have ever talked to says that ?s an important reason why three-tier has endured. State attorneys general and state liquor control boards, given three-tier ?s success in keeping the mob out of booze, don ?t see any reason get rid of it.
? The distributors, and especially those that deal in beer and spirits, don ?t want three-tier to change, and spend millions and millions of dollars annually lobbying state and federal legislators to preserve the system. This is understandable, too, given that the end of three-tier would mean the end of distribution as they know it. Their allies, surprisingly, are often independent retailers, who don ?t want their chain competitors to be able to buy wine directly from the winery, since that would give the bigger companies better pricing.
The worst part about thee-tier? We ?re stuck with it. A variety of federal court decisions, including Siesta Market in 2010, have said that three-tier is constitutionally protected, just like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The 21st Amendment, say the various rulings, shelters three-tier from court challenges and state and federal legislation to alter it.
For wine drinkers, three-tier limits consumer choice. Do you live in Illinois and had a wine you liked at dinner in Wisconsin? Did you try to buy that wine in Illinois only to find that it isn’t available? That’s the fault of three-tier. Just because a distributor in Wisconsin carries the wine is no guarantee that a distributor in Illinois will carry it. The Illinois distributor may not like the wine or the person who makes it or how much it costs. So they decide not to carry it, and you can’t buy it ? even though it’s available in another state just a half-hour drive away.
This is an especially acute problem for cheap wine. Distributors, all things being equal, prefer to deal with the biggest producers. They can get better pricing, the supply chain is more efficient, there is money for marketing, and they’ll have more wine to sell since big producers deal in tens of thousands of cases.
But much cheap wine ? perhaps the most interesting cheap wine ? is made by smaller companies that don’t produce tens of thousands of cases, can’t offer the best prices, have less efficient delivery systems, and whose wines are more quirky. So they have more difficulty finding a distributor ? and often can’t.
This is such a problem that there are trade events for wineries that don’t have distributors, held in the hope that a distributor will sample their wines and then take them on. It’s kind of sad, actually. Meanwhile, smaller wineries that do have distributors usually have to settle for smaller distributors that have less clout with retailers, which means the producer’s wines are limited in availability and may even cost more.
I ?m resigned to three-tier, given the court rulings. But that doesn ?t mean I have to be happy about it.
Is the Fetzer Zipz glass the answer for portable wine?
As usual, the answer depends on how much you pay for the wine. If you have to pay some concessionaire bandit $11 at a baseball game, absolutely not. But if you can find the wine in the plastic glass for $3 at a grocery store, and you ?re not fussy about what it tastes like and you want the convenience, you could do worse.
The Zipz effort has 187 milliliters of wine, about one glass (one-quarter of a bottle). It ?s a PET product, made with the kind of plastic commonly used for bottled water containers.
The Zipz looks like a wine glass, if a little clunky. It ?s sealed with wrapping around the rim and stem, a plastic top, and pullback foil over the wine. The idea behind Zipz is to sell wine in places where it ?s impractical for bottles and glasses, like ball games, concerts, and the like. Or, consumers can buy it at retail and take it camping or on picnics.
In this, the Zipz was surprisingly easy to open, even when I did it the wrong way the first couple of times. Tear the wrapping at the strip, gently pry the top off, and pull back the foil. I only spilled a little wine once. Plus, it was easy to chill.
The problem is that the wine is not Fetzer ?s best effort. Something like House Band, a similar concept, is better made. The Quartz White (sample, 12%) was the better of the two, an apple-ly, sweet and sour blend made with more than six grapes and that tasted of moscato, though there was more chardonnay than anything else. It ?s a bit sweet, which helps to cover some of the bitterness from what could be unripe grapes.
The Crimson Red (sample, 13.5%) is a lot of what turns people off of red wine ? tannic and bitter, despite a slight sweetness. Both glasses I tasted seemed oxidized, and I wonder if the PET handles heat (which is one cause of oxidation) as well as glass. Or maybe both were just stored badly.
The wine has fake oak, zinfandel and syrah (plus at least four other grapes), but the blend is not greater than the whole. Having said that, if I ?m at the beach, grilling burgers, only drink red wine, and I ?m not picky, it ?s OK. Adding an ice cube won’t hurt.
This ties in nicely with the various Big Wine discussions we ?ve had on the blog over the last month, and it also puts many of the numbers that I ?ve reported over the years in one place — wine consumption, wine production, and most popular wines according to grape variety. The chart is courtesy of the Statistic Brain website, compiled in August; just ignore the misspellings.
Pay careful attention to the most popular restaurant wines, listed near the bottom of the chart, which is as Big Wine as it gets. Click here for a PDF — it's the only way I could get the chart on the site and make it readable.
Call it serendipity. Shortly after my blog posts about Big Wine at the end of last year, a Michigan State study offered even more data about how Big Wine works and how it has changed the business.
The paper, “Concentration in the U.S. Wine Industry,” was compiled by Phil Howard, an associate professor who studies consolidation. After doing soft drinks and beer, he told me, wine was the next logical step.
“And even I was surprised by what I found,” Howard said. “Wine was much different than what I thought. If you go to the stores, it seems like you have all these choices, because the shared ownership is not very apparent. We wanted to help consumers understand what they were really buying.”
The study consists of two parts — third-party sales data and store visits from Howard and his graduate assistants. The former, displayed in some very nifty charts on the study website, paints a fascinating picture of market share as well who owns what labels. Three companies — E&J Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation Brands — account for more than half of wine sales in the U.S.
This is my favorite chart. For example, you can see how important Cook’s champagne is to Constellation Brands (about as much as Robert Mondavi, believe it not), and that Bronco, which makes Two-buck Chuck, has a bigger market share than much larger companies like Diageo and Altria, which owns Chateau Ste. Michelle.
The store visit results were even more fascinating. Howard and his graduate assistants counted wine at 20 Michigan retailers, where they found more than 3,600 unique varieties (where chardonnay was one variety, merlot another, and so forth). Those wines came from more than 1,000 different “companies,” although, as the study noted, the “top firms each contribute to an illusion of diverse ownership by offering dozens of brands (and hundreds of varieties), many of which do not clearly indicate the parent company on their label.”
The reason for that, said Howard, is not difficult to figure out: “A company known for producing cheap wine and not quality wine does not necessarily want to be identified with a premium, high-end brand.”
Other key points:
• The only unique varieties of wine found in more than half the retailers were Clos du Bois chardonnay, from Constellation, and Cavit pinot grigio. In other words, wine has no national brands, in the way every retailer in beer carries Bud Light and Coke and Pepsi are in every store that sells soft drinks.
• Half of the stores carried the same six varieties — Blackstone merlot, Ravenswood zinfandel, and Woodbridge chardonnay, all from Constellation, and Apothic red, Barefoot chardonnay, and Ecco Domani pinot grigio, all from Gallo. What this says about retailer selection, customer preference, and distributor clout is worth a second study.
• The top six wine companies in the U.S. accounted for more than one-fifth of the varieties found in the stores. That it isn’t higher speaks to retailer determination to carry other brands, something else not seen in soft drinks or beer.
• Howard said that the variety and number of wines, as impressive as it is, would probably be even more impressive in states that are less regulated than Michigan, which has one of the tightest three-tier systems in the country.
Finally, though Big Wine isn’t as top-heavy as Big Beer, it may be headed that way, said Howard. He said the wine business resembles the beer business in the 1950s, when 30 companies dominated the market. Today, just two beer producers — AB InBev and Molson Coors — account for three-quarters of all sales.
A flabby wine has a lot in common with this fellow.
A well-made wine should have structure, and this is something that holds true regardless of price. Just because a wine is cheap doesn ?t give it an excuse, and the best cheap wines do just that.
Structure means a wine should have a pleasing aroma and a beginning, a middle, and an end when you taste it. You should be able to taste the tannins (if the wine has any), as well as the acid, and the alcohol will stay in the background. In this, the wine is in balance, and that should be the goal for every winemaker.
A flabby wine doesn ?t really have any structure, and one part ? usually the fruit ? predominates. The wine can taste almost syrupy, or more like grape juice than wine, and everything you taste sort of runs together.
The best analogy is an overweight man, whose muscle tone long ago went wherever muscle tone goes. It ?s important to note, though, that ? like people ? a wine doesn ?t have to cut and buffed to do its job. Too much structure can be just as bad as not enough, producing a wine that may be technicially correct but that offers little pleasure when you drink it.
One of the biggest changes in the wine business over the past decade has been the growth in wine departments in grocery stores. Just a decade ago, they were often small and cramped and dirty, and there wasn ?t much to choose from ? even among the biggest national chains.
There are many reasons why this happened, but the most important was the emergence of the specialty grocer like Trader Joe ?s and Whole Foods. They had well-stocked wine departments, and the national chains and their regional counterparts had to respond or risk losing that more affluent customer. So, today, you can find $100 bottles of wine in your local supermarket.
In many ways, the economics of the grocery store wine business are no different than the economics of laundry detergent or ketchup, taking into account local laws and regulations, of course. Wineries pay for shelf space and prominent displays like endcaps (those stacks on the end of an aisle), just like cereal makers. They offer special pricing to retailers, which is reflected in the sales prices in your weekly circular. And there are even loss leaders ? wine sold at the retailer ?s cost to lure shoppers into the store, just like milk.
Hence a grocery store wine ? a brand probably from one of the largest national producers and sold mostly at supermarkets for $8 to $15. It ?s usually a varietal, often from California, and has a cute label or a cute name. Though they are simple wines, without a lot complexity, they can be good values.
The other thing about the term? It applies even in those dozen or so states that don ?t sell wine in grocery stores, like New York. The concept remains the same, even if the retailer doesn ?t.